Robert Christgau once observed of Motörhead that they were the “thinking person’s headbang” precisely because they were once thought to be the worst band in the world: “the stuff is so pure it’s almost rarefied…just aggression, violence, noise.” The same might be said about Lightning Bolt. Not that anybody with ears would ever accuse either of the Brians from Providence—Gibson on bass guitar, Chippendale on drums and vocals—of not knowing how to play. It takes formidable chops to get as much mileage out of their style of rock ‘n’ roll minimalism as they have. But the austere basis of their blistering, bludgeoning sound no doubt contributes a lot to their enduring and uniquely broad appeal. If the result signifies as mutant punk or metal, the absence of either designation’s tropes or scene baggage opens it to black metal pedants and indie pop nebbishes equally. It also secures their bona fides with the noise music intelligentsia without surrendering an inch of their storied mosh pit.

Indeed, since Lightning Bolt leaves so much up to entropy—letting overburdened amps and Chippendale’s improvisatory drumming flesh out Gibson’s bare-bones riffs—they’re a live band first and foremost. Hence their well-known skepticism about studio recordings. What has ended up on wax over the course of five LPs and one EP was taped directly from their practice space; post-production was mostly self-effacing, preserving the gritty exigencies of Gibson and Chippendale’s fertilizer bomb chemistry. In the case of 2005’s Hypermagic Mountain, that meant re-recording onto a DAT cassette, which Sony had just discontinued, after unsatisfactory initial masters. News that the band’s sixth LP, Fantasy Empire, would not only signal a jump from their hometown’s noise label Load to Chicago’s broader reaching Thrill Jockey, but also a move to a professional studio, was therefore ominous. What would such an ardently flesh-and-blood band have to give up in the streamlining process?

Evidence suggests: not much. Fantasy Empire adds mass and tone while leaving the veiny, mongrel Lightning Bolt form unmistakably intact. Chippendale’s Jello Biafra-on-a-megaphone vocals and Art Blakey-on-methamphetamines percussion, and Gibson’s hypnotically piercing micro-melodies are cleaner, leaner and meaner. The holistic recording approach of previous albums subordinated Gibson’s bass parts in particular: as fodder for effects pedal rancor, and the avant-garde joke of making instruments do what they’re not meant to do, like Rosanne Barr plugging her ears and singing the national anthem. On Fantasy Empire, Gibson’s quirky tuning and top-heavy playing hit high and low at once filling an earth-cracking bottom end even as he shrieks across the bass’s outer limits. Never has his snarl sounded so ugly or so rich, and the lead track, “The Metal East,” shows him off with a teasingly endless one-note opening riff.

As that punny title suggests, heavy metal is Lightning Bolt’s principle reference point on Fantasy Empire, which eschews the aggro playground ditties of Ride the Skies and Wonderful Rainbow, and the krautrock-by-way-of-Boredoms psychedelia of Earthly Delights, for relentless riffage along the lines of their Hypermagic Mountain. With their mathy time signatures, free jazz ethos and disavowal of metal’s self-seriousness, Lightning Bolt has always been something of a lo-fi Meshuggah, maniacally mixing styles with a keen ear for turbocharged grooves. “Horsepower” is emblematic, merging speed metal’s single-minded rhythm guitar-and-ride cymbal attack with a hardcore gallop and an accent of thrash’s minor key menace. The scabrous feedback that permeated previous Lightning Bolt releases is deployed with a greater sense of purpose, adding dynamic range where it once buried everything it touched.

But the real stunner is the closer. At 11 ½ minutes, “Snow White & the 7 Dwarves Fans” is nothing less than an epic song suite, beginning with a mournful 4-chord progression in the mode of so-called “post-metal,” then extrapolating tirelessly, as Chippendale’s trademark snare fills accumulate over an unusually restrained swing beat, and then fall away again in the smoldering finale to reveal something like a funk rhythm. Lightning Bolt has indulged in long songs before, but never with such a sustained arc of motifs, variations and tempo shifts. The vocals are still inscrutable and the melodic range is still limited, so “Snow White” isn’t exactly Lightning Bolt’s prog turn, per se. It does, however, demand recognition for the measured musicianship of a band long assumed to be entirely animated by primal force.

That recognition is long overdue. Gibson and Chippendale’s keen sense of structure has manifested in shorter form for a while now (cf. “Dracula Mountain,” “Riff Wraith,” “Sublime Freak”). That would have eluded the more dilettantish types who only come for the noise, and dismiss Lightning Bolt as a one-trick pony, a college-age phase, grist for the hipster novelty mill. It will continue to elude them, probably, if they never bothered to listen to the recorded output—under the assumption it was just a merch table placeholder for the band’s infamous guerrilla gigs —but especially if they believe a clean production compromises the band’s singular appeal. The megalithic Fantasy Empire submits that they would be sorely mistaken.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Oeuvre: Kiarostami: Shirin

Kiarostami has always been known to intertwine practice with theory, and Shirin plays like…